Six Australians are about to be placed on Interpol's most wanted list as diplomatic tension mounts over a formal demand that they return to Peru to stand trial for murder.
Sydney university students Sam Smith, Harrison Geier and Andrew Pilat, and Melbourne trio Hugh and Tom Hanlon and Jessica Vo have been named as prime suspects in a homicide case that centres on the mysterious death of a hotel doorman in the Peruvian capital of Lima.
Police allege that in January last year, the tourists killed Lino Rodriguez Vilchez by pushing him off the 15th floor of a building in which they were staying.
Fairfax Media can reveal that, 18 months on, Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr and federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus were forced to hold crisis talks last week with members of the group and their families. The emergency meetings were triggered by an extraordinary ultimatum from the Peruvian authorities who have subpoenaed all six to return by July 1 to give statements before their trial or be listed as international fugitives under an Interpol red notice.
In an exclusive interview on Friday, ''The Peru Six'' confirmed they would not be travelling to South America next week. Ms Vo, 24, described the trip as one of the best experiences she'll ever have but the aftermath as a ''nightmare''.
''You can't warn anyone about this type of scenario because you can't predict it could ever happen. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time,'' she said. ''I want it to end, not just for us but our families. It is so emotionally draining and financially straining. It is impossible to carry on normally.''
Mr Carr confirmed on Saturday that top-level talks were under way between both countries.
''It's hard to imagine the enormous stress these young Australians would be under as a result of these proceedings. I have raised the case with the Peruvian government on three occasions and our embassy is also pursuing it in talks and in writing.
''We can't interfere directly ... but we can urge authorities to deal with it quickly and transparently.''
After several days of trekking and a 21-hour bus journey, the Australians settled into some creature comforts, courtesy of a pre-booked luxury apartment in the well-heeled Miraflores district of Lima.
The group say their first contact with the building's doorman, Mr Rodriguez, was when he helped them carry their luggage to the lift. Their last contact was a short time later when he provided directions to the nearest grocery store. But after returning to their room with shopping, they heard a ''thud'' outside. When they peered out of the window, there was a body below - the doorman had plunged to his death.
Later that day, uniformed police, plainclothes detectives and other men in white laboratory-style coats all visited the Australians - with one officer taking photos of their passports.
Contrary to Peruvian media reports that the six immediately fled, they remained in the room for two nights. They then went their various ways after embassy officials confirmed with local authorities they were free to leave.
However, in June, Peruvian television reported that police had discounted their earlier suicide theory and now believed Mr Rodriguez was thrown from a balcony, with the Australians suddenly in the frame.
In one media interview, Mr Rodriguez' brother Wilbur claimed that it had been forensically proven that his brother had been beaten savagely and thrown out of a window where he hit another building. He also claimed that, after conducting his own "research", he believed his brother had become involved in a row about ''noise''.
For a year now, the group's parents have been forced to take up the costly legal fight.
In July last year, they appointed Peruvian lawyers whose first task was to stop a judge from issuing an extradition order. In the months since, they commissioned a Peruvian forensic expert Jose Pablo Baraybar to complete an independent report that could be presented in court. His assessment concluded there was ''no technical and evidentiary support to justify the prosecutor's complaint''. The judge ignored the evidence.
On March 14 and May 20, Australian embassy officials attended court as the case progressed through pre-trial hearings. Then, last month, the judge confirmed an international arrest warrant would be lodged against all six if they failed to appear at a three-day hearing between July 1 and 3.
Harrison Geier, from Wagga Wagga and studying at the University of Technology, Sydney, said it was still hard to fathom why they had all been accused. ''We are enduring a roller-coaster of emotions, with no obvious end.''
Hugh Hanlon said he and his brother Tom had already missed out on a working trip to China. "None of us can travel or make plans. Our lives are effectively on hold."
In a bid to clear to their names, the group will launch a social media campaign today at http://www.facebook.com/completelywronglyaccused
- Sydney Morning Herald